August 14, 2013

Cold Beer and Tackling Fear (Phong Nha, Vietnam)

It's above us, below us, surrounding us. It's as if the darkness has swallowed us up whole. It seems to go on forever. The air is hollow and silent except for the sounds of our breathing and of our arms and legs softly swishing through the black water. The water is so cold that my legs cramp behind my knees. Is it possible for someone to forget how to swim? I'm worried I might. Occasionally, I reach out to clamp on to Tom's arm/hand/back/head/foot just to have a touchstone.

We're in one of the many caves in Vietnam's Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park (a UNESCO site), and I'm scared. They had told us what to expect, but I was still unprepared. I never considered myself a brave person, but here I am, swimming in the deep, black waters of a mysterious cave that I was terrified to enter. The only light comes from my headlamp and the headlamps of my companions, though I know (from backpacker tales) that they will soon ask us to turn out our torches and tread water in the apparent infinite vastness. Just the thought of it makes my heart race. I reach out again to my touchstone. That's enough for the moment and, in a quick second of calm, I am in awe of what we're experiencing.

There are only a few guesthouses in the area and the most popular one, by far, is Phong Nha Farmstay, owned by an Aussie (Ben, one of the first people to explore the region's caves) who married a local Vietnamese woman (Bich) and is staffed by fellow long-term travelers stopping off for awhile in the countryside. Later that night, when it's all over and I've survived, I tell Ben how scared I was in the cave. "That cave terrifies me," he agrees, "We don't know what's in that cave!"

Now you tell me.


Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park is the home to the world's largest cave, Son Doong. (Recently, National Geographic ran an amazing special about this cave.) Unfortunately, tourists aren't allowed to visit that particular cave, as it's still being explored and charted, but we were able to visit several caves in the same complex. We visited the region after our time in Hoi An. You may remember the description of our crazy train ride (bag-o-cats) from there to Dong Hoi (read here). Thankfully, things improved from there and we found the park to be a magical place. This part of the trip ranks right up there as one of our favorites. (You might be noticing a common thread in our Vietnam posts. We loved most of the country.)
Phong Nha Farmstay
The Farmstay also runs the only non-package tours through the region's caves and we took full advantage of their offerings. Our first day, we toured the beautiful Paradise Cave and went on a scenic drive through the park's jungles. It was good fun, but pretty mild in terms of activity and adrenalin.
Nice, relaxed fun. Couldn't we just leave well-enough alone?

Convinced by other guests at the Farmstay, we signed up for the more aggressive Bike and Boat Tour on the hottest day in months. Biking through the rice paddies was amazing, and we loved being greeted by the village children who ran out to the road side to call out to us and give us high fives. By the time we arrived at the Phong Nha cave, we were drenched with sweat and more than ready to dive into the cold waters in and surrounding it. That is, of course, until we actually entered the shadowless darkness and saw the underground river we were meant to swim in.

After the swim, we made our way through the unlit cave, at times only an arms-length wide and, at other times, having to crawl through tunnels. It was intense, but so AWESOME!

At the cave entrance (light is still visible from the opening)
Now, listen. I know I'm dramatic and can slightly exaggerate (don't tell my husband I just admitted to that), so let me be clear. We survived. People do this several times a week. It's not technically dangerous. But I'm not exaggerating my level of fear or uncertainty in wading into that creepy water. I was freaked out. But I did it anyway. You know, Loose of Limits, and all. And I'm SO glad I did. It was actually pretty awesome and, as this hidden gem of a national park becomes more popular, experiences like these may become harder to find. So, thanks to Ben and Bich for making this possible, and thanks to Tom for resisting laughter as I clung to his life jacket in the dark.
This is me, laughing maniacally through my fear.
Over the course of our stay at Phong Nha Farmstay, we visited at least 4 or 5 caves and each one left us breathless with wonder. We learned about how the layers of rock are tilted to the perfect angle/degree for the formation of these gigantic caves. Every single day was full of fascinating stories and exploration. We learned that this karst region and its 300 caves began forming 400 MILLION YEARS AGO! We learned about the Vietnam/American War and how the Vietnamese troops used the caves as shelter and ammunitions holds. We saw the blast marks on the side of the formations from where American pilots dropped bombs. We heard the story of Bich's mom, a medic during the war, and walked the supply road that thousands of local youths volunteered to build - breaking records for their level of productivity - all in a show of loyal patriotism. We played with the adorable puppies that lived at the Farmstay. We biked through remote villages, ate delicious food, swam in the Farmstay's pool, and hung out with the other backpackers calling it home for a few days. It was pretty idyllic. But, before I wrap this up, one more story for you.

For days at the Farmstay, we had been hearing about the Pub With Cold Beer (that's its name). Apparently, this establishment serves the "best chicken lunch you'll ever have" along with the obvious - cold beer. Keep in mind - there is no town or city center near us, which means there are no restaurants or bars anywhere remotely close. So this Pub was quite the novelty. The way everyone talked about it, it sounded almost like Shangri-La. The anticipation continued to build until we knew we simply HAD to visit this mystical Pub With Cold Beer. Getting there involved renting bikes from the Farmstay, riding through the quiet countryside (where we were told there was one small hill to tackle) and wading through a river (which we were assured was low, narrow, and calm). We set off with visions of cold beer and chicken. 

Nice Water Buffalo,,,
They lied. There were FOUR pretty big hills to tackle on our poorly equipped bikes and we were panting and sweating like pigs after the first 30 minutes. All the trees had been cleared from the area, so there was absolutely no shade and I actually felt like I was melting. Finally, after an hour and a half of biking on the hilly, rutted-out roads in the sweltering heat, we arrived at the so-called "low, narrow, and calm" river. It was none of these things. It was high, wide, and moving at a decent clip. And it also had several water buffalo wading nearby which may look placid, but can be surprisingly fast and aggressive when they want. 

There's a chance we weren't at the crossing point they suggested but we were so tired that we resigned ourselves to just try to cross where we were instead of walking the river looking for a better spot. So, with bikes held over our heads, we slogged, barefoot, into the river hoping to at least find some relief from the heat. That relief didn't come and the crossing was difficult. The river was like bath water and, towards the middle, I was waist-deep in flowing water carrying a bike over my head and trying not to think about my feet squishing in the muddy bottom of the river. When we finally reached the other side, we found it was too steep to exit the water and climb the bank so we continued, walking upstream against the current until we found a place to climb out. 

Looking for an exit point
With wet legs and muddy feet, we climbed the bank and, once at the top, found ourselves covered with the sandy soil. We were absolutely disgusting. Still, we were in good spirits and "The Pub" was in sight, so we kept going. "The Pub" is run by a local woman who started to sell cold beer for the (illegal) loggers coming down out of the park. We were grateful for the shade and the hammocks she had strung up between the trees. I, of course, immediately fell in love with her two adorable daughters who spoke no English but showed no shyness and immediately climbed into my lap when I sat down. The owner brought us cold beers and we ordered two chicken lunches with peanut sauce. Without hesitating and without interrupting the conversation or eye contact, she reached down, picked up a chicken and, right in front of us, broke its neck. Unable to speak, we stared in shock. She told us to have a seat, so we did. Tom decided he needed another drink, so he walked around the corner to ask for one and saw the chicken hanging upside down, blood rushing from its neck. 

An hour later, we ate it. And, you know what? It was the best chicken lunch I had eaten all day.

No pics of the chicken, but this is us on the way and relaxing in the hammock
Phong Nha is, in our opinion, a MUST DO for any independent traveler in Vietnam. The Farmstay was perfect. The scenery is gorgeous. The adventures are endless. The history is fascinating. You will not be disappointed. Just make sure you find the right river crossing point when you go looking for the Pub With Cold Beer. 

Check out all of our pics from Phong Nha here. You should also check out the photos a fellow blogger took of the caves. (We went to all the places pictured on this page.) A few more of our favorites (that we took) are below. 

Check out all of our pics from Phong Nha here


  1. Thank you for sharing. I loved that dark cave personally. Pure magic, swimming in the dark followed by a lint of wobbly lights. Cheers!